I’ve decided I really just don’t like Star Trek: Next Generation (ST: TNG) very much. For years, I was its defender against all comers. I liked it a lot when it was still on the air. And I liked it in reruns for awhile. But the more I watch it, the less I find redeeming about it (you might see my influence on this score in this quasi editorial). There are things I still like about it, but it’s become increasingly difficult to separate the quadrotriticale from the chaff. But, for now let me speak in broad brushstrokes. Everything good about the show, they fell over backwards into.
Indeed, almost everything about TNG was designed to be the opposite of The Original Series (TOS). They originally thought that Ryker was going to be this really powerful personality, a James T. Kirk as second-in-command who actually kept the captain safely on board. But, he sucked. He was a bad actor, and he allowed himself to be upstaged by a Euroweenie with a French attitude and name (in fairness Patrick Stewart is a much better actor). The original Trek was a Cold War drama where a Kennedy-esque captain, exploring the new, final, frontier was willing to pay any price, bear any burden for decency and freedom. The enemies were totalitarians — Klingons, Romulans etc. The new Trek took the Prime Directive deadly seriously and went out of its way time and again to set itself off from the understated Americanism of the original series. Now, the greatest enemies were the Ferengi — runaway capitalists with bullwhips who looked like a mix between Nazi caricatures of Jews and the original Nosferatu. They failed miserably as villains and, over time, had to become comedic relief. The Borg were eventually introduced as the signature bad guys of Star Trek because — guess what? — collectivists always make for better enemies than capitalists, even bad capitalists. But one gets the distinct impression that if the producers had their druthers, the villains in Star Trek would have remained anti-environmental, free-market, unilateralists until the bitter end.
But we can come back to that. What also drove me crazy was how someone got it into their head that Star Trek needed to be a showcase for the acting chops of the entire ensemble. So one episode we get to follow Dr. Crusher around the ship for a frick’n hour as she tries to muster a feminist complaint in the 23rd century. In another episode, we’re expected to sustain interest in Troi’s romantic life. The constant explorations of Data’s inner life at least had some sci-fi benefits — he was an android after all — but even here the priority seemed to be to show that Brent Spiner can act.
Which brings me to the hideous holodeck. It makes noooooo sense scientifically. But we can forgive that, I guess. But it makes even less sense dramatically — for a sci-fi show. Who wants to watch the crew of the USS Enterprise solve a 1930s crime story — a billion frick’n times? In interviews, you could tell that the actors though the holodeck was perhaps the best part of the show because it allowed them to do all sorts of different and exciting things as actors. Well guess what? The show is not about the actors! The most successful star of the whole series was William Shatner for Pete’s sake.
What’s interesting, to me at least, is that TOS still holds up, while TNG basically does not. The acting, the effects and even, in a sense, the writing of TNG is better. But the original series has a soul and a clear vision. The vision of TNG is a post Cold War vision and as such it lacked coherence. It tried to marry Roddenberry’s optimistic dream of the future with a critical stance toward the present, and it came up with mush. The best things about TNG were those things that the fans wanted — more war, more Worf, more action — and the producers stumbled on. Contrast this with Battlestar Galactica, which has a critical, albeit complicated, vision of our own time but also has a pessimistic vision of our future (or what might turn out to be our future). One could defend TNG college-administrators-in-space goody-goody banality by arguing that it was an interesting and somewhat accurate reflection on the “holiday from history” zeitgeist that saturated the 1990s while Battlestar Galactica reflects our more interesting times. But that just underscores how Battlestar Galactica is, in fact, interesting and Star Trek the Next Generation really isn’t, at least not anymore.